Show People: Ladies and gentlemen, the prince of pith: Jack Dee

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IT'S THE ideal live comedy experience. Suavely suited comedian arrives at club in classic car, scythes through the crowd, is extremely amusing for about 25 minutes and then leaves - gracefully acknowledging the applause of the crowd with a modest nod of the head. What a shame that sort of thing only ever happens on TV, and even there only on The Jack Dee Show.

Dee - sultan of scorn, prince of pith, a man with a curl to his nose and a wrinkle on his lips - is a comedian on the verge of a nerveless breakthrough. He's done the first series, won the best newcomer award (at the British Comedy Awards, 1991) and figureheaded the successful advertising campaign which now seems to be the crucial stage in any comedy career. His second series features not only what he calls 'the scoff school of comedy' - of which he is, if not head boy, certainly a prefect - but also some 'subtle' stuff that he's pleased with.

Little things - how teachers behave when they go out with their friends, the way men hold power drills when there's no one else around - mean a lot to him. 'It won't surprise anyone who knows my comedy that I can concentrate on a very tiny subject for a very great length of time.' On the way into the TV production office this morning, Dee was thinking about how hard it is to put the sleeves into video boxes, and what it would be like to have that as your job. 'But if you asked me what was going on in Parliament I probably wouldn't know.'

When Dee first strolled on to the stand-up circuit in the late Eighties, his concern with the everyday helped him stand out from the mass of news- led comedians. Now the pendulum has swung the other way, and you can't move for comics saying: 'You know what it's like when . . .' with imploring looks on their faces. But the precision of Dee's observations, and the style and economy of his presentation, still keep him ahead of the pack.

The new series was recorded between dates on a lengthy nationwide tour. Coming to the camera fresh from having to project to people in the back row of the Hammersmith Apollo helped Dee become 'more animated, more of a performer'. Seeing him live in such a large arena, the effect was somewhat muted, but, on the small screen, material which dragged on stage seems to be shot through with electricity. A routine about a teacher and his tragic obsession with Mojo sweet wrappers scales Hancockian heights of pathos, and the whole thing is quick and sharp and beautifully observed.

In person he is self-contained and businesslike, a man at work. He's not one of these wet-behind-the-ears straight-from-college comedians - he went straight from school in Winchester to 'more bad jobs than I can remember'. Does he have a sense of having escaped a life of drudgery? 'Yes I do, and it's coupled with a sense of dread that I might end up back there - one of the chief motivating forces in my life is that I never want to wait tables again.'

The turning point came while he was working in a Covent Garden pizza emporium. 'All the restaurants there were staffed by people who were either actors or songwriters or jugglers or painters - everyone seemed to have something else going on except me. People had always told me I was funny, and when I discovered the Comedy Store, I had this overwhelming feeling they'd started without me.'

Dee saw Norman Lovett, Arnold Brown and Jeremy Hardy, and one night took his chance on the open mike. 'I had a couple of things I planned to do, which just flew straight out of my head. But something I said got a laugh, and I can remember thinking: 'I know this feeling.' It was a feeling I enjoyed - like messing around in class, which is what I always did and was best at.

'I was not so much the class comic,' Dee continues, 'more a sort of educational terrorist. Disrupting things was more important to me than getting laughs - looking back, I realise I was just jealous of the teachers because they had all the attention and I wanted it.' Dee's schooldays gave him not just the opportunity, but also the motive for sharpening his wit. 'I went to a private school for a while when I was quite young, and was thought of as a bit of a commoner, and then I went to a comprehensive where everyone thought I was posh. It was no great trauma, but there was always this sense of being out on my own, which a lot of comedians seem to have.'

Dee's work has none of the infantilism of so much current comedy. The Bohemia Club setting for his television show is designed to feel grown up. 'The idea behind it was to be somewhere Simon Templar might take his best girl for a night out.' The venue refers not only to an idealised British television past, but also to 'the American tradition of supper rooms, where cabaret is quite a sophisticated event.'

Dee is bullish about the American influence on his work. 'The US has such a huge reservoir of comedians who've been doing interesting stuff for 20 years.' He doesn't just mention the obvious names - Steven Wright, Billy Crystal. 'Rodney Dangerfield was a big influence,' he confesses. His films aren't much good, are they? 'No, but there's an album of his called No Respect which is one of the best pieces of recorded stand-up I know. It's just gag, gag, gag: 'Last night my wife told me to take the garbage out. And I said, you take it out - you cooked it.' Anyone who can write stuff like that can make as many bad films as they like.'

Dee is now 32, and his own wife and new-born daughter play an ever- larger part in his act. Is there a difference in the way that he uses his family compared with the use an old- school comedian, such as Les Dawson, might make of his? 'I haven't really thought about how it comes across, but I'm quite strict with myself in terms of subject matter. I won't do anything that I can't do without debasing it. For instance I don't talk about sex because I've not found a way to do so without debasing it - very few comics can actually deal with sex without degrading it, themselves and their partners.'

The moral high ground is not a territory Dee has previously been thought to have his beady eye on. 'I think of jokes all the time,' he says, 'but most of them won't get done on stage, because I don't basically like a lot of what I think of. It's not good enough just to be getting a laugh; after a while you start to be fussy about the kind of laugh you're getting. There's a particular kind which I really hate, which is the laugh that belongs to people watching television shows, that I don't like.'

What does that mean exactly? 'That 'Ooh no missus' kind of thing - Carry On-type comedy where you only have to mention knickers and you get this awful 'Yo ho ho'. I would do anything to stop that. I'd rather people didn't laugh at all.'

'The Jack Dee Show' continues Friday, 10.30-11.05pm, Channel 4.

(Photograph omitted)

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